Like most films, I went into Happy Death Day cold so the central conceit of the film hit me like whiplash. It’s basically Groundhog Day meets your average exploitation slasher film, as many have pointed out. I won’t lie, I was a little disappointed. It’s not that I’m a sissy and scare easy but I never really see horror films in the cinema so I had psyched myself for something tense and filled with dread. I was hoping for the bonus score of screaming girls and the sight of grown men flinching. Nope, it was basically demented laughs all around.
It took a while for me to recalibrate my senses and properly enjoy Happy Death Day. I thought it was smart and demonstrated a strong awareness of genre tropes. It didn’t have to, but it even dropped a Groundhog Day reference. For the uninitiated, Groundhog Day is a film about Bill Murray living the same day over and over and over again so he learns to be less of an asshole. Happy Death Day is a film about a horrid unsympathetic college student, Tree (Jessica Rothe), that is murdered to relive and die in the same day over and over and over again till she learns to be a better person, a better survivor and figures out how to outwit the entity murdering her on loop.
We get a sense of how much of a conceited snob Tree is after she makes a walk of shame to her annoying sorority’s abode, hungover, after waking in a strangers dorm on her birthday. There’s a poor guy she won’t text back, she won’t pick her dad’s calls, she’s mean to her roomie and she is also screwing her teacher, who happens to be married. So if there’s anyone who needs to relive the same day over again as a lesson, it’s definitely Screenwriter, Scott Lobdell was probably like: how do elevate my film from rip off to pastiche? Throw in an almost supernatural entity with a creepy baby mask that resets the day by murdering our protagonist in a variety of ways.
Tree’s first death happens en route to a party. It ticks the box for all your slasher tropes; the aforementioned creepy mask, jump scares, a contrived plot point to insert some lullaby music, a big kitchen knife, white girl screaming, a white girl running in heels, a white girl falling in classic fashion and white girl stabbed to death by the baddie.
The initial horror of knowing your day ends and begins with a painful death is effective. It becomes an interesting and suspenseful game of “how is she going to die this time” overseen commendably by director Christopher B. Landon who blends different genres quite seamlessly. The deaths won’t service slasher and gore junkies though. After manic peaks that really get under your skin, we enter morbid humour territory as Tree tries to find out who her killer is, with some help from an unlikely ally cum cute love interest played by one Israel Broussard.
Our lead carries this film effortlessly. Lothe never gets boring or annoying. She has a good scream on her and really shines when it comes to the dark comedy and silliness. She convinces in the moments of terror and earns the moment of reflection as she edges closer to the “new me mark”.
There was a moment when I thought our director was miles ahead of his audience and tapped into horrifying despair that truly would have made Happy Death Day properly hellish and haunting. But the film quickly ties some knots, throws in a twist and opts for the lighter ending that would put a smile on your face instead of kicking in palpitations and spark some existential angst.
Alas, a meta-horror comedy is all we get and it all feels a little pointless, to be honest. But Happy Death Day passes as perfectly fine popcorn fare and film that will probably remain memorable because of its Groundhog Day ties.